Whitney Ashley, swimmers Morganne McKennan, Courtney Vincent, and Kristina Murphy, paralympic athlete Michelle Cross with sprinting coach Isaac Jean-Paul, and boxer Andrea Medina

tokyo dreams deferred

SDSU’s Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls had their sights set on the 2020 Games. Now, due to the coronavirus pandemic, they’re adapting to an extra year of preparation and sacrifice.

By Lisa Haney

June 15, 2020

Olympic discus thrower, Whitney Ashley

Olympic discus thrower Whitney Ashley (’12). Photograph by Raymond Jackson.

Whitney Ashley (’12) is Ready to Throw Down

2020 was going to be Whitney Ashley’s year.

In 2012, the discus thrower made it to the U.S. Olympic Team Trials—only to finish dead last in the competition. Ashley was coming straight off her Aztec career as NCAA champion but found herself unprepared for the Olympic-level pressure.

“I was a deer in headlights,” she says.

In 2016, after four years of hard work and international competition, she was back at the Trials. This time, she finished first and made it to the Rio Olympic Games. But as she was about to do her first throw, it started to rain. Hard. The 2.2-pound discus slipped out of her hand, along with her Olympic dream. “I blinked and it was over,” she says, “and I thought, this is what my four years has come to?”

At first, Ashley was depressed. But soon she decided to give her sport another four years and shoot for Tokyo 2020. She started watching hours of video each day, analyzing all the meticulous details of world-class throwing. She improved her diet, started meditating. “It became vital to focus on the fundamentals and attention to detail,” she says.

She’s had to solve for other challenges too. In 2017, her coach at her Chula Vista, California training center was fired, and she made the decision to move to Kansas to be near her new coach. Since losing her Nike sponsorship after Rio, she’s gotten creative with smaller sponsorships like a local winery in Kansas and donations on her website (whitneyashley.com).

“I’ve struggled in these last four years mentally and physically, emotionally, financially, you name it,” Ashley says.

Now she has to add another year to her journey.

Her training facilities are closed but she’s throwing on concrete into an open field with her coach, lifting in the garage and following yoga videos on YouTube. The winery, under financial strain, paused her payments. Still, Ashley remains positive.

Whenever she gives inspirational talks to kids, she tells them: Things aren’t always going to turn out the way you want them to. It’s how you respond that matters. “Here I am,” she says, “still standing.”


Adapted Athletes Take On The World

SDSU Adapted Athletics was created just two years ago, to provide student-athletes with disabilities the opportunity to excel at a collegiate level. Already, many are on track to make Team USA for the Tokyo Paralympic Games.

The student-athletes in the Ambulatory Track and Field program—plus sprinting coach Isaac Jean-Paul—qualified for the 2020 U.S. Paralympic Team Trials. Now, with the Trials and Games postponed until next summer, the athletes are doing their best to stay in competitive shape from home.

“We’re all training with what’s given to us where we live,” says Amanda Malawski, a sprinter with cerebral palsy (CP) who qualified for the 400-meter dash. The sophomore criminal justice major is running in her Sugar Grove, Illinois neighborhood and focusing on drills and core exercises. “This obviously isn’t ideal, but it just gives us more time to become better athletes,” she says.

Michelle Cross, a 100-m and 200-m sprinter with CP who has ranked in the Top 40 in the world, is in a similar situation in her Rancho Santa Margarita, California hometown. “My dad was able to get me some equipment but, for the most part, it’s all body weight exercises,” says Cross, a junior criminal justice major.

Paralympic athlete, Michelle Cross, and sprinting coach, Isaac Jean-Paul

From left: SDSU Adapted Athletics sprinting coach Isaac Jean-Paul and sprinter Michelle Cross. Photograph by Michael Osorio.

Mikayla Chandler, a field athlete with dwarfism who’s been ranked No. 10 in the world for shot put, is in a slightly better position at her home in Massachusetts. “Luckily for me, my dad set up a mock throwing field in my backyard a few years ago,” Chandler says.

The teammates are also doing their best to stay in touch with each other and their coaches, and to maintain a positive attitude through the challenges. Cross says, “At least we won’t have to wait until 2024.”


Olympic boxer, Andrea Medina

Boxer Andrea Medina. Photograph by Sandy Huffaker.

Andrea Medina Rolls with the Punches

Andrea Medina started boxing when she was five years old. Her father, Juan, had taken her to check out a karate place for lessons but when she spied a boxing ring next door, she told him, “I want to do that.”

A few years later, Andrea was competing—local, then national, tournaments—with Juan, who had boxed in his youth, as her coach. “But I really knew I could do something with the sport when I went to the Junior Olympics at 15 and beat the world champion,” Andrea says. She’s been dreaming of the Olympics ever since.

By the time the coronavirus pandemic hit in spring, Andrea, now 20, had already made the USA Boxing 2020 Olympic Team in the 125-lb. weight class and was training at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She just needed to place in the top three at one more international tournament to secure her Tokyo spot. Then the Games got delayed for a year everyone got sent home.

Andrea’s staying optimistic, though. “This is just more time to perfect my craft and work on the little things I need to work on,” she says. “It can get me better and stronger.”

Nicknamed “The Boss,” Andrea is known in the ring for her fancy footwork, mean left hook and an aggressive attack style. But all that skill is just 10 percent of boxing, Juan says. “Ninety percent is mental,” he says. And Andrea’s mental game going toward Tokyo is strong.

To focus on her goal, the junior criminal justice major from Chula Vista had taken the spring semester off from SDSU, and took online courses around her training last fall. Now she needs to decide whether to take another year off. She’s eager to get back to her studies but Tokyo remains her priority.

“I’m so excited to have this opportunity,” Andrea says. “I just imagine myself walking in the opening ceremony, and getting that gold medal.”


Get these swimmers some water

Swimmers need a pool. “You have to stay in the water to keep your feel,” says Morganne McKennan, a qualifier for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in the 100-meter breaststroke.

But as pools closed in March due to the pandemic, SDSU’s Olympic hopeful swimmers were left on dry land. Then the Trials got postponed to 2021.

By early April, Morganne had been out of the water for a month—the longest stretch since she began swimming competitively at age 4. “It’s just weird—17 years of swimming ending so abruptly,” McKennan says.

As a senior graduating in December, she finished her Aztec career this Spring as an All-American. She had hoped to top it off by making it to at least the semifinal rounds of the Trials. Now she has to decide whether to keep training. “As of now I’m ready to start my life outside of the water,” she says.

Teammate All-American Courtney Vincent will also graduate in December and have to decide whether to compete in the 100-m butterfly at the Trials next year. Meanwhile Kristina Murphy, who will be a junior in the fall, is still training (pool-less) to compete in the 200-m breaststroke. She says, “What’s comforting me right now is that everybody’s in the same boat.”

Olympic swimmers Morganne McKennan, Courtney Vincent and Kristina Murphy

From left: SDSU swimmers Kristina Murphy, Courtney Vincent and Morganne McKennan. Photograph by Sandy Huffaker.